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Business

Winter shutdown necessary for North Fork store to thrive

Fork & Anchor co-owners Lucy Muellner, left, and

Fork & Anchor co-owners Lucy Muellner, left, and Erin Johnson, seen on Dec. 19, 2016, close their East Marion store for 10 weeks during the winter when business is slower. Credit: Randee Daddona

In 2011, when Erin Johnson and Lucy Muellner purchased Fork & Anchor in the remote North Fork hamlet of East Marion, they operated year-round.

But after a few years they realized staying open through the winter months didn’t make financial sense.

So last winter they closed the store for six weeks for the first time, and this year they’ll extend that to 10 weeks. They’d close for even longer if it weren’t for wanting to retain their four full-time staff members.

“We want to keep our employees, and being closed longer would be difficult for them,” says Johnson, 37, who says the store, which closed Dec. 23, will reopen March 1.

Plus, the store, which operates seven days a week and grows to 10 to 12 employees in peak season, is an anchor of sorts for many local residents. The location has been the site of a general store since the mid-1800s and still serves that function along with operating as a gourmet deli.

In the summer its 19th century barn is also a Community Supported Agriculture pickup location for Deep Roots Farm in Southold, says Muellner, 37.

“It’s a vital part of the community,” notes Tom Owens, 57, who has a home in East Marion and says he’ll miss the eatery while it’s closed.

But Owens’ house there is a second home; his primary residence is in Baldwin. In that split he’s like many part-time North Fork residents.

The year-round population of East Marion is 932, a number that increases by 2,439 during the summer months, according to Peter Lambert, principal planner in the Suffolk County Planning Department.

That kind of drop makes operating a seasonal retail business challenging, requiring establishments like Fork & Anchor to maximize the high season and plan carefully during the winter months.

“Seasonal businesses really have to manage their cash flow well,” says Erica Chase-Gregory, regional director of the Small Business Development Center at Farmingdale State College. “They have 10 to 12 weeks to ‘make’ the year.”

Strategizing during the winter months, finding new revenue streams, and keeping in touch with staff and customers during the off-season are key, she says.

“If there’s any lack of communication, it could become a problem,” Chase-Gregory says.

Johnson and Muellner understand this and gave their full-time staffers advance notice they’d be closing for a longer period this winter.

“No one’s complained yet,” says Johnson, noting workers can collect unemployment while the business is closed.

John Coverdale, president of The Center for Workplace Solutions, a Blue Point human resources management firm, says it’s important to explain to workers why you’re closing and when you’ll reopen.

Seasonal businesses can also offer incentives for key employees to return, and perhaps even send them a token like a packet of movie tickets, Coverdale says.

Fork & Anchor employee Maia Mazzaferro, 17, of Greenport, says she saved up during the high season in anticipation of the longer closing.

“I was trying to save my paychecks,” she says. “It’s going to be tough to pay for expenses, but it’s nice to get a break.”

Mazzaferro, a high school senior who has been working at the store for about a year and a half during the summer, on weekends and after school, says she’ll definitely return to Fork & Anchor.

“I love working there,” she says. “There’s a great feel.”

As for Fork & Anchor customers, though they won’t be able to go to the store for two months, for the first time they’ll be able to buy some of its more popular items on its website.

Online offerings include three flavors of the store’s homemade relish, a custom coffee blend and branded T-shirts.

“It’s just more brand exposure,” says Johnson, noting they’d like to sell more products online.

They’d also like to expand their footprint and set up a mobile cart at Brewer Yacht Yard in Greenport this summer, says Muellner.

To maximize the high season, they’ve shifted focus from the general store to increased catering and selling prepared meals and picnic boxes utilizing locally sourced ingredients. They still stock staples in the general store but have reduced inventory to focus on offerings that produce higher revenue streams, such as prepared meals.

As a result, despite a cold, wet spring, 2016 was the first year the store turned a profit, the duo say.

This winter they won’t be idle, but rather brainstorming new ways to maximize the season and generate foot traffic, such as possibly adding an ATM, Johnson says.

“We’ll be planning and re-energizing for next season,” Muellner says.

At a glance

Company: Fork & Anchor, East Marion

Business: General store and gourmet deli

Co-owners: Erin Johnson and Lucy Muellner

Employees: 4 full-time (grows to 10 to 12 in season)

Annual revenue: Approximately $700,000

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